Saving On Call Charges in a Recession with Your BlackBerry

By Craig Johnston on 19 Nov 2008 09:59 am EST

UMA Thurman or Universal Mobile Access?Saving money is close to the number one item on all priority lists within enterprises today and one way to save money is to cut down on the cost of calls.  BlackBerry adoption within enterprises is very high and has now become an essential part of everyday business, so there is no way that you is going to take away an employee’s BlackBerry because it will likely cost more for that employee to perform their job.  However what if you could save a lot of money on their phone calls?

That is where Universal Mobile Access (UMA) comes in.  A UMA-enabled BlackBerry has the ability to save A LOT of money and improve the whole experience as a side effect.

While this article is geared towards businesses, everyone can take advantage of this technology and save the same amount of money.

What is UMA?

The acronym UMA has stayed the same, but the words that make it up have changed a couple of times.  First it was Unlicensed Media Access, then Unlicensed Mobile Access, and now Universal Mobile Access.  It all means the same thing at the end of the day.  UMA describes the ability of a mobile phone to switch back and forth between two kinds of networks seamlessly.  The implementation that is the most common is for a mobile phone to switch between WiFi and cellular networks seamlessly.

There are two components that allow UMA to function.  The first part is UMA equipment that your mobile provider or carrier installs.  The second component is a mobile phone that has a WiFi and cellular radio, plus embedded UMA software that allows it to switch back and forth seamlessly.  These are commonly called Dual Mode Handsets (DMH).   Figure 1 below should make it a little clearer.

UMA Overview
UMA Overview

In Figure 1 you see the UMA-Enabled Dual-Mode Handset in blue and its two paths of connection back to the carrier.  One path is the traditional cellular network, and the other is via a WiFi hot spot, over the Internet, and back to the carrier.

With a UMA-enabled mobile phone and a carrier that supports UMA, you can see at least one clear benefit and that is one of providing better coverage.  This is because every WiFi hot spot that you can connect to essentially becomes a mini cell tower for that carrier.  For example, let’s say that you don’t get great coverage in your house.  It is very likely that you have a WiFi router installed, and so now your UMA-enabled mobile phone will get 5 bars of coverage all over your house.

That is impressive on its own, but what makes it even better is that the mobile phone can switch back and forth between the WiFi network and the cellular network completely seamlessly, with no dropped calls, pause in audio, audio skipping, or any interruption in audio whatsoever.  In addition, when you are making calls over WiFi, the call quality actually improves.

It should be noted that it is not only your voice connection that utilizes UMA, but your data connection too.  This means that your web browsing speed improves, and any third party applications that you use on your phone will speed up.

So How Do You Save Money?

I’m sure that UMA sounds impressive on a technical level, but you are still probably wondering how it saves you money.  That is the best part.

The wonderful thing about UMA happens when you make calls over WiFi.  You see, when your phone is connected to WiFi, it is still communicating with your carrier, but the communications are going over the Internet to the carrier.  The carrier has no way of knowing where in the world you are when you connect to them over WiFi.  This means that they continue to simply deduct minutes off your regular monthly plan.  If you are travelling internationally and connect to hotel WiFi, or a client’s WiFi, or airport lounge WiF, and make calls, your carrier doesn’t charge you outrages roaming fees in addition to deducting minutes.  So you immediately save on roaming fees which range from $1 a minute to $5 a minute depending on the country you are travelling in.  The bottom line is that the carrier assumes that you are in your home country when you connect to them over WiFi.

Because you are assumed to be in your home country, all calls are charged as if you are making the calls from your home country.  If you make an international call, you will be charged the regular international rate as if you had made the call from your home country.  So let’s say you are travelling in England and you call someone in England.  If you did not have UMA, your carrier would charge you the international rate for the call plus the roaming charges per minute.  With UMA, since the carrier assumes you are in your home country, you are not charged roaming fees, but the international charge still applies.  It is still much cheaper on UMA than cellular.

But it gets even better.  Most carriers that support UMA have unlimited calling plans for UMA.  For example T-Mobile USA has an add-on for $9.99 per month that allows you to make unlimited calls over WiFi.  You can imagine that there is some point where you could cut down your 1500 minute plan to say a 300 minute plan, pay the extra $9.99 per month, and call from anywhere in the world for free, when connected to WiFi.

What if the Hot Spot is Secured?

Each time you connect to a new WiFi hotspot, you set it up one time and the mobile phone remembers the settings.  So any encryption keys and network names are saved so that the next time you are within range, your phone will just connect seamlessly.

If the WiFi hot spot requires a login, say a hotel WiFi that needs a room number, that is not problem either.  The mobile phone simply takes you straight to that login page after you connect so you can type in your details.  Your phone should then be able to re-connect throughout the day depending on how long the time-out value is set at the hotel.

Is UMA Secure?

Yes UMA is secure.  The phone sets up an IPSec connection to the carrier, and when the call is switched to WiFi, it continues to use the same encryption it uses over the cellular network.  So it is actually double-encrypted.

Supporting UMA-enabled phones within an enterprise network is also safe because you can setup a VLAN that connects directly to the Internet and allows only the ports needed to establish an IPSec connection.  The enterprise UMA-enabled phone is also secure out in the field on public or private hot spots because of the double-encryption.  So nobody can listen in on your calls or see your data with a Sniffer.

What BlackBerrys Support UMA?

There are many models that support UMA, but the key is that they will only support UMA when used with a mobile provider or carrier that supports UMA.  The BlackBerry 8120 (Pearl), 8820, 8320 (Curve), and 8220 (Pearl Flip) all support UMA.  As of now the BlackBerry 9000 (Bold) does not support UMA.

Some of the carriers that support UMA are T-Mobile USA, Orange (multiple countries), and Rogers.

Reader comments

Saving On Call Charges in a Recession with Your BlackBerry


Any rumors about the Bold supporting UMA? I was disappointed after getting my Bold that it wasn't supported; especially considering all the other Wifi enabled Blackberries support it.

"You could cut down your 1500 minute plan to say a 300 minute plan, pay the extra $9.99 per month, and call from anywhere in the world for free, when connected to WiFi".

That's exactly what I did.

I am currently using ATT because I had to have the Bold but I will soon by going back to Tmobile for many reasons.

I do think that ATT has the best network coverage without a doubt but they suck in so many other ways.

I had a short run with Sprint which was OK but they still can't compete with Tmobile overall.

My data speed is not as good with Tmobile which stinks but the coverage isn't bad, you can roam to ATTs network anyhow in most areas so...

Tmobiles customer service rocks! Pricing Rocks! Myfaves rocks!

UMA is just another reason why I will go back to them.

Now if I can just decide if I want to try to unlock my Bold and force it on to Tmobile or if I want to wait for the Javelin or a Tmobile Bold or??? Arrggg!

If only it were truly seamless. I drop the call EVERY time when on a UMA call going to EDGE. Going from EDGE to UMA is fine though.

For the most part it is seamless. It may be your OS, I know some beta 4.5 releases had a lot of issues with UMA/EDGE transitions.

Thanks PLT.

I have been using UMA on T-Mobile for a long time now, pretty much ever since I could get the 8320.
I have done many tests switching back and forth between WiFi and EDGE and found that it is flawless. The times it becomes a problem is when the device runs out of memory (memory leak or otherwise). Then for some reason, the switching breaks down.
As someone else pointed out, early versions of OS 4.5 had issues, and being someone who loves the bleeding edge I upgraded and saw the UMA suffering. However T-Mobile's official release fixed all of that.

The concept is great but here in Canada with Canada's only GSM provider (Rogers) it doesn't work the same.

For one they charge $15.00 cdn. for unlimited local calling and $20.00 for unlimited usage in Canada only.
The sad part to this is they IP block usage outside of this country making this feature less valuable. :(

UMA is the absolute best. I love it and will wait for any new Blackberries to hit Tmob so I can get my WIFI and my UMA.

I'm torn. UMA works fine (the dropped calls are annoying, but it's such a cool feature). In 2 short days, the Storm will be out. My whole family uses Verizon and no one has any problems whatsoever with voice call quality. Do I switch? Goodbye to myFavs? Goodbye to UMA? Goodbye to my Curve's physical keyboard? Hello CDMA and EVDO rev A? Can I handle the touch screen? (I have an iPod Touch for music and my massive photo album, but really don't send out emails on the thing even though I can). Ugggggh...

I've had two 8320's with either 4.2.2 or 4.5 OS and neither has worked without issues. I had a T-Mobile tweaked router and calls were dropped all the time while I was less than two feet away. Techs were no help. I had hoped that 4.5 would have cured the woes, but no such luck. I find the 8320 useful, but as a UMA phone, it is less than useful. Even with four bars on EDGE, calls drop for no reason... the dreaded "call failed" pops up without reason and the phone is useless for several minutes, all the while showing four bars. Very frustrating...

UMA holds great promise, but at this moment it simply does not work. I switched from Verizon to T-Mobile primarily on the strength of the UMA promise. We could never get even the newest routers to work reliably with our five Curves. We bought one of the T-Mobile Linksys routers and things seemed to improve. The new Blackberry OS seems to have helped as well. But the T-Mobile router does not support N.

Some days the audio quality would be wonderful and the next day unusable. And forget about switching back and forth between UMA and the T-Mobile Edge network, the call just drops. Period.

The T-Mobile tech support people are doing their best, but I get the feeling even they know there are real issues. I will stay with T-Mobile while the work out the issues. Any way you figure it T-Mobile is way better than Verizon, both in price and support.

But while UMA promise is great, the current performance is far from it.

Craig, has anyone figured out how to use UMA on unlocked smartphones (like the iPhone, the Bold, or the Treo Pro) running on T-mobile? This would appear to be the ultimate: a smartphone with 3G capabilities and Wifi. The coverage possibilities are essentially endless. Thanks.

UMA has to be 'baked into' a phone. It requires specific hardware be implemented that simply doesn't exist on non-UMA devices. So no matter how slick your WiFi-enabled phone is it can't be converted over with a firmware (re)flash or whatever.

So no, you won't see UMA on your iPhone, Bold, or Treo Pro unless a special hardware manufacturing run is done for a UMA-supporting carrier. Sans a hardware encoded-GSM-to-WiFi data path it just ain't gonna happen on your existing hardware.

That said UMA is a must-have feature for me. My home is below the level of the local terrain and there is simply no cell service to my little no-bar-blob on the coverage map. But with my WiFi access point upstairs and a UMA-supporting-phone I'm in 5-bar heaven.

Same when I'm traveling - so what if my ski lodge is on the back of a mountain, as long as it has WiFi I'm golden. Same for deep inside buildings - no need to loiter out near a window, just get on the office WiFI.

As to handovers - I dunno what sad phones some folks are using but my 8120, 8220, & 8820 all switch between WiFi & cell without a hiccup (as long as there is cell service to switch to!)

Sorry,all the help forums are down at the moment and I just need some quick help.. How do I put this SD memory card in my curve? I can get the card in but then the black cover thingy won't latch down... Please Help! Thanks

What's the difference between the two? I read that almost all WiFi enabled phones can support VoIP calls, but not necessarily UMA. Can UMA equipped phones support VoIP calls too?

Its just like a VoIP phone. Has anybody tried an unlocked Bold with T-mobile? RIM states that the Bold supports UMA. Someone tried making UMA call from a different country with no problems?

I might have posted this in the wrong place previously but I wanted to know if UMA is available in the UK - I have a bold, which I don't think supports UMA but if it were avaiable in the UK on Vodafone, I might consider swapping to the 8900.

I agree that UMA is a great solution: a WIN-WIN for Consumer and Operator. Femtocells are coming as well, but for now, UMA has the edge. For a considering using , here's a comparison of UMA (T-Mobile) vs. Femocell (Sprint):

Anyone interested in pimping out their UMA service should check out the section of my blog dedicted to FREE enhancements:


Is there a way to use UMA service without having a WiFi connection?

I work in a building with terrible cell coverage and without wifi. I have internet access on my PC and would love to be able to utilize the UMA functionality by some other method - USB, bluetooth, etc.

Any suggestions?